Syed Ameer Ali.

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with the absolute power possessed by the chiefs, originated
the custom which, in our advanced times, is justly regarded as
an unendurable evil.

Among all Eastern nations of antiquity, polygamy was a
recognised institution. Its practice by royalty, which every-
where bore the insignia of divinity, sanctified its observance
to the people. Among the Hindus, polygamy, in both its
aspects, prevailed from the earliest times. There was,
apparently, as among the ancient Medes, Babylonians,
Assyrians, and Persians, no restriction as to the number of
wives a man might have. A high caste Brahman, even in
modern times, is privileged to marry as many wives as he
chooses. Polygamy existed among the Israelites before the
time of Moses, who continued the institution without imposing
any limit on the number of marriages which a Hebrew husband
might contract. In later times, the Talmud of Jerusalem
restricted the number by the ability of the husband to main-
tain the wives properly ; and though the Rabbins counselled
that a man should not take more than four wives, the Karaites

1 " Paradise is at the foot of the mother ; " the Prophet.


differed from them, and did not recognise the validity of any

To the Persians, religion offered a premium on the plurality
of wives. 1

Among the Syro-Phcenician races, whom the Israelites dis-
placed, conquered, or destroyed, polygamy was degraded into
bestiality. 2

Among the Thracians, Lydians, and the Pelasgian races
settled in various parts of Europe and Western Asia, the
custom of plurality of marriages prevailed to an inordinate
extent, and dwarfs all comparison with the practice prevailing
elsewhere. 3

Among the Athenians, the most civilised and most cultured
of all the nations of antiquity, the wife was a mere chattel
marketable and transferable to others, and a subject of testa-
mentary disposition. She was regarded in the light of an evil,
indispensable for the ordering of a household and procreation
of children. An Athenian was allowed to have any number of
wives ; and Demosthenes gloried in the possession by his
people of three classes of women, two of which furnished the
legal and semi-legal wives. 4

Among the Spartans, though the men were not allowed,
unless under especial circumstances, to have more than one
wife, the women could have, and almost always had, more
than one husband. 5

The peculiar circumstances under which the Roman State
was originally constituted probably prevented the introduction
of legal polygamy at the commencement of its existence.
Whatever the historical truth of the Rape of the Sabines, the
very existence of the tradition testifies to the causes which
helped to form the primitive laws of the Romans on the subject
of matrimony. In the surrounding states generally, and
especially among the Etruscans, plurality of marriage was a
privileged custom. The contact, for centuries, with the other

1 Doliinger, The Gentile and the Jew, pp. 405, 406. 2 Lev. xviii. 24.

3 Encyclopedic Universale, art. " Manage " ; Doliinger, The Gentile and the
Jew, vol. ii. p. 233.

4 Doliinger, The Gentile and the Jew, vol. ii. pp. 233-238.

5 Grote, History of Greece, vol. vi. p. 136.


nations of Italy, the wars and conquests of ages, combined
with the luxurious habits which success engendered, at last
resulted in making the sanctity of marriage a mere by-word
amongst the Romans. Polygamy was not indeed legalised,
but " after the Punic triumphs the matrons of Rome aspired
to the common benefits of a free and opulent republic, and
their wishes were gratified by the indulgence of fathers and
lovers." * Marriage soon became a simple practice of pro-
miscuous concubinage. Concubinage recognised by the laws
of the State acquired the force of a privileged institution. The
freedom of women, the looseness of the tie which bound them
to men, the frequency with which wives were changed or
transferred, betoken in fact the prevalence of polygamy, only
under a different name.

In the meantime, the doctrines of primitive Christianity
preached on the shores of Galilee began to irradiate the whole
Roman world. The influence of the Essenes, which is reflected
visibly in the teachings of Jesus, combined with an earnest
anticipation of the Kingdom of Heaven, had led the Prophet
of Nazareth to depreciate matrimony in general, although he
never interdicted or expressly forbade its practice in any

Polygamy flourished in a more or less pronounced form
until forbidden by the laws of Justinian. But the prohibition
contained in the civil law effected no change in the moral ideas
of the people, and polygamy continued to be practised until
condemned by the opinion of modern society. The wives,
with the exception of the one first married, laboured under
severe disabilities. Without rights, without any of the safe-
guards which the law threw around the favoured first one, they
were the slaves of every caprice and whim of their husbands.
Their children were stigmatised as bastards, precluded from
all share in the inheritance of their father, and treated as
outcasts from society.

Morganatic and left-handed marriages were not confined to
the aristocracy. Even the clergy, frequently forgetting their
vows of celibacy, contracted more than one legal or illegal
union. History proves conclusively that, until very recent

1 Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. ii. p. 206.


times, polygamy was not considered so reprehensible as it is
now. St. Augustine x himself seems to have observed in it no
intrinsic immorality or sinfulness, and declared that polygamy
was not a crime where it was the legal institution of a country.
The German reformers, as Hallam points out, even so late as
the sixteenth century, admitted the validity of a second or a
third marriage contemporaneously with the first, in default of
issue and other similar causes.

Some scholars, whilst admitting that there is no intrinsic
immorality in a plurality of wives, and that Jesus did not
absolutely or expressly forbid the custom, hold that the present
monogamous practice, in one sense general throughout Europe,
arose from the engrafting of either Germanic or Hellenic-
Roman notions on Christianity. 2 The latter view is distinctly
opposed to fact and history and deserves no credit. As regards
the Germans, the proof of their monogamous habits and customs
rests upon the uncorroborated testimony of one or two Romans,
of all men the most untrustworthy witnesses to facts when it
was to their interest to suppress them. Besides, we must
remember the object with which Tacitus wrote his Manners of
the Germans. It was a distinct attack upon the licentiousness
of his own people, and, by contrasting the laxity of the Romans
with the imaginary virtues of barbarians, was intended to
introduce better ideas into Rome. Again, supposing that
Tacitus is right, to what cause should we ascribe the poly-
gamous habits of the higher classes of the Germans, even up
to the nineteenth century ? 3

Whatever may have been the custom of the Romans in
early times, it is evident that in the latter days of the republic
and the commencement of the empire, polygamy must have
been accepted as an institution, or, at least, not regarded as
illegal. Its existence is assumed, and its practice recognised,
by the edict which interfered with its universality. How far
the Praetorian Edict succeeded in remedying the evil, or divert-
ing the current of public opinion, appears from the rescript of

1 St. Augustine, lib. ii. cont. Faust, ch. xlvii.

2 M. Barthelemy St. Hilaire appears to hold the opinion that monogamy
was engrafted upon Christianity from Hellenic and Roman sources.

s Comp. Encyclopidie Universelle, art. Mariage.
s.i, p


the Emperors Honorius and Arcadius towards the end of the
fourth century, and the practice of Constantine and his son,
both of whom had several wives. The Emperor Valentinian
II., by an edict, allowed all the subjects of the empire, if they
pleased, to marry several wives ; nor does it appear from the
ecclesiastical history of those times that the bishops and the
heads of the Christian Churches made any objection to this
law. 1 Far from it, all the succeeding emperors practised
polygamy, and the people generally were not remiss in following
their example.

This state of the laws continued until the time of Justinian,
when the concentrated wisdom and experience of thirteen
centuries of progress and development in the arts of life resulted
in the proclamation of the laws which have shed a factitious
lustre on his infamous reign. But these laws owed little to
Christianity, at least directly. The greatest adviser of
Justinian was an atheist and a pagan. Even the prohibition
of polygamy by Justinian failed to check the tendency of the
age. The law represented the advancement of thought ; its
influence was confined to a few thinkers, but to the mass it
was a perfectly dead letter.

In the western parts of Europe, the tremendous upheaval of
the barbarians, the intermingling of their moral ideas with
those of the people among whom they settled, tended to
degrade the relations between man and wife. Some of the
barbaric codes attempted to deal with polygamy, 2 but example
was stronger than precept, and the monarchs, setting the
fashion of plurality of wives, were quickly imitated by the
people. 3 Even the clergy, in spite of the recommendation to
perpetual celibacy held out to them by the Church, availed
themselves of the custom of keeping several left-handed wives
by a simple licence obtained from the bishop or the head of
their diocese. 4

1 Comp. Encyclopedic Universelle, art. Manage and Davenport, Apology
for Mahomet.

2 Like the laws of Theodoric. But they were based on advanced Byzantine

3 For polygamy among the Merovingian and Carlovingian sovereigns, see
The Short History of the Saracens, p. 626.

4 Comp. Hallam's Constitutional History of England, vol. i. p. 87, and note ;
Middle Ages, p. 353 (1 vol. ed.).


The greatest and most reprehensible mistake committed by
Christian writers is to suppose that Mohammed either adopted
or legalised polygamy. The old idea of his having introduced
it, a sign only of the ignorance of those who entertained that
notion, is by this time exploded ; but the opinion that he
adopted and legalised the custom is still maintained by the
common masses, as well as by many of the learned in Christen-
dom. No belief can be more false.

Mohammed found polygamy practised, not only among his
own people, but amongst the people of the neighbouring
countries, where it assumed some of its most degrading aspects.
The laws of the Christian empire had indeed tried to correct
the evil, but without avail. Polygamy continued to flourish
unchecked, and the wretched women, with the exception of
the first wife, selected according to priority of time, laboured
under severe disabilities.

The corruptness of morals in Persia about the time of the
Prophet was deplorable. There was no recognised law of
marriage, or, if any existed, it was completely ignored. In the
absence of any fixed rule in the Zend-Avesta as to the number
of wives a man might possess, the Persians indulged in a
multitude of regular matrimonial connections, besides having
a number of concubines. 1

Among the ancient Arabs and the Jews there existed,
besides the system of plurality of wives, the custom of entering
into conditional, as well as temporary contracts of marriage.
These loose notions of morality exercised a disastrous influence
on the constitution of society within the peninsula.

The reforms instituted by Mohammed effected a vast and
marked improvement in the position of women. Both among
the Jews and the non-nomadic Arabs the condition of women
was degraded in the extreme. The Hebrew maiden, even in
her father's house, stood in the position of a servant ; her
father could sell her if a minor. In case of his death, the sons
could dispose of her at their will and pleasure. The daughter
inherited nothing, except when there were no male heirs. 2
Among the settled pagan Arabs, who were mostly influenced

1 Dollinger, The Gentile and the Jew, vol. i. p. 406.

2 Num. xxx. 17.


by the corrupt and effete civilisation of the neighbouring
empires, a woman was considered a mere chattel ; she formed
an integral part of the estate of her husband or her father ;
and the widows of a man descended to his son or sons by right
of inheritance, as any other portion of his patrimony. Hence
the frequent unions between step-sons and step-mothers which,
when subsequently forbidden by Islam, were branded under
the name of Nikdh ul-Mekt (" shameful or odious marriages ").
Even polyandry was practised by the half- Jewish, half-Sabsean
tribes of Yemen. 1

The pre-Islamite Arabs carried their aversion to women so
far as to destroy, by burying alive, many of their female
children. This fearful custom, which was most prevalent
among the tribes of Koreish and Kindah, was denounced in
burning terms by Mohammed and was prohibited under severe
penalties, along with the inhuman practice, which they, in
common with other nations of antiquity, observed, of sacri-
ficing children to their gods.

In both the empires, the Persian and the Byzantine, women
occupied a very low position in the social scale. Fanatical
enthusiasts, whom Christendom in later times canonised as
saints, preached against them and denounced their enormities,
forgetting that the evils they preceived in women were the
reflections of their own jaundiced minds. It was at this time,
when the social fabric was falling to pieces on all sides, when all
that had hitherto kept it together was giving way, when the
cry had gone forth that all the older systems had been weighed
in the scale of experience and found wanting, that Mohammed
introduced his reforms.

The Prophet of Islam enforced as one of the essential teach-
ings of his creed, " respect for women." And his followers, in
their love and reverence for his celebrated daughter, proclaimed
her " the Lady of Paradise," as the representative of her sex.
" Our Lady of Light " 2 is the embodiment of all that is divine
in womanhood, — of all that is pure and true and holy in her
sex, — the noblest ideal of human conception. And she has
been followed by a long succession of women, who have

1 Lenormant, Ancient History of the East, vol. ii. p. 318.

2 Kkdtfin-i-jinnat, Fdtima't-az-zahrQ,


consecrated their sex by their virtues. Who has not heard of
the saintly Rabi'a and a thousand others her equals ?

In the laws which the Arabian Prophet promulgated he
strictly prohibited the custom of conditional marriages, and
though at first temporary marriages were tacitly allowed, in
the third year of the Hegira even these were forbidden. 1
Mohammed secured to women, in his system, rights which
they had not before possessed ; he allowed them privileges the
value of which will be more fully appreciated as time advances.
He placed them on a footing of perfect equality with men
in the exercise of all legal powers and functions. He restrained
polygamy by limiting the maximum number of contempor-
aneous marriages, and by making absolute equity towards all
obligatory on the man. It is worthy of note that the clause
in the Koran which contains the permission to contract four
contemporaneous marriages, is immediately followed by a
sentence which cuts down the significance of the preceding
passage to its normal and legitimate dimensions. The passage
runs thus, " You may marry two, three, or four wives, but not
more." The subsequent lines declare, " but if you cannot deal
equitably and justly with all, you shall marry only one." The
extreme importance of this proviso, bearing especially in mind
the meaning which is attached to the word " equity " {'adl)
in the Koranic teachings, has not been lost sight of by the
great thinkers of the Moslem world. 'Adl signifies not merely
equality of treatment in the matter of lodgment, clothing and
other domestic requisites, but also complete equity in love,
affection and esteem. As absolute justice in matters of feeling
is impossible, the Koranic prescription amounted in reality to
a prohibition. This view was propounded as early as the third
century of the Hegira. 2 In the reign of al-Mamun, the first
Mu'tazilite doctors taught that the developed Koranic laws

1 A section of the Shiahs still regard temporary maiTiages as lawful. But
with all deference to the Mujtahids, who have expounded that view, I cannot
help considering that it was put forward to suit the tastes of the times, or of
the sovereigns under whom these lawyers nourished. In many of their
doctrines one cannot fail to perceive the influence of personal inclinations.

2 The Radd ul-Mtthtdr distinctly says " some doctors [the Mu'tazila] hold
that 'adl includes equality in love and affection, but our masters differ from
this view and confine it to equal treatment in the matter of nafkah, which
in the language of law, signifies food, clothing and lodgment."


inculcated monogamy. And though the cruel persecution of
the mad bigot, Mutawakkil, prevented the general diffusion of
their teachings, the conviction is gradually forcing itself on all
sides, in all advanced Moslem communities, that polygamy is
as much opposed to the teachings of Mohammed as it is to the
general progress of civilised society and true culture. 1

The fact must be borne in mind, that the existence of poly-
gamy depends on circumstances. Certain times, certain
conditions of society, make its practice absolutely needful, for
the preservation of women from starvation or utter destitution.
If reports and statistics speak true, the greatest proportion of
the mass of immorality prevalent in the centres of civilisation
in the West arises from absolute destitution. Abbe Hue and
Lady Duff Gordon have both remarked that in the generality
of cases sheer force of circumstances drives people to polygamy
in the East.

With the progress of thought, with the ever-changing con-
ditions of this world, the necessity for polygamy disappears,
and its practice is tacitly abandoned or expressly forbidden.
And hence it is, that in those Moslem countries where the
circumstances which made its existence at first necessary are
disappearing, plurality of wives has come to be regarded as an
evil, and as an institution opposed to the teachings of the
Prophet ; while in those countries where the conditions of
society are different, where the means which, in advanced
communities, enable women to help themselves are absent or
wanting, polygamy must necessarily continue to exist. Perhaps
the objection may be raised, that as the freedom of construction
leaves room for casuistical distinctions, the total extinction of
polygamy will be a task of considerable difficulty. We admit
the force of this objection, which deserves the serious con-
sideration of all Moslems desirous of freeing the Islamic
teachings from the blame which has hitherto been attached to
them, and of moving with advancing civilisation. But it must
be remembered that the elasticity of laws is the greatest test
of their beneficence and usefulness. And this is the merit of
the Koranic provision. It is adapted alike for the acceptance

1 Compare the remarks on this subject of Moulvi Chiragh Ali in his able
work called Are Reforms possible in Mohammedan States?


of the most cultured society and the requirements of the least
civilised. It ignores not the needs of progressive humanity,
nor forgets that there are races and communities on the earth
among whom monogamy may prove a dire evil. The task of
abolishing polygamy, however, is not so difficult as is imagined.
The blight that has fallen on the Moslem nations is due to the
patristic doctrine which has prohibited the exercise of indi-
vidual judgment (Ijtihdd). The day is not far distant when an
appeal to the Teacher's own words will settle the question
whether the Moslems will follow Mohammed or the Fathers of
the Church, who have misused the Master's name to satisfy
their own whimsicalities, or the capricious dictates of Caliphs
and Sultans, whose obsequious servants they were. Europe
has gone through the same process herself, and instead of
hurling anathemas at the Church of Mohammed, ought to
watch, with patience and sympathy, the efforts of regenerated
Islam to free itself from patristic bondage. When once the
freedom from the enthralment of old ideas is achieved, it will
be easy for the jurists of each particular Moslem State to
abolish, by an authoritative dictum, polygamy within that
State. But such a consummation can only result from a
general progress in the conception of facts, and a proper under-
standing of the Prophet's teachings. Polygamy is disappearing,
or will soon disappear, under the new light in which his words
are being studied.

As remarked already, the compatibility of Mohammed's
system with every stage of progress shows their Founder's
wisdom. Among unadvanced communities, polygamy, hedged
by all the safeguards imposed by the Prophet, is by no means
an evil to be deplored. At least it is preferable to those
polyandrous customs and habits and modes of life which
betoken an utter abandonment of all moral self-restraint. As
culture advances, the mischiefs resulting from polygamy are
better appreciated, and the meaning of the prohibition better
comprehended. We are by no means prepared to say that the
Musulmans of India have benefited greatly by their inter-
mixture with the Brahmanical races, among whom prostitution
was a legalised custom. Their moral ideas have become lax ;
the conception of human dignity and spiritual purity has


become degraded ; the class of hetairai has become as popular
among them as among their non-Moslem neighbours. And yet
there are signs visible which bid us hope that God's light, which
lit up Arabia in the seventh century, will fall on their hearts and
bring them out of the darkness in which they are now plunged.
The Mu'tazila is, by conviction, a strict monogamist ; according
to him the law forbids a second union during the subsistence
of a prior contract. In other words, a Mu'tazila marriage
fulfils in every respect the requirements of an essentially
monogamous marriage as a " voluntary union for life of one
man and one woman to the exclusion of all others."

Even among the archaic sects, a large and influential body
hold polygamy to be unlawful, the circumstances which
rendered it permissible in primitive times having either passed
away or not existing in the present day.

As a matter of fact, the feeling against polygamy is becoming
a strong social, if not a moral, conviction, and many extraneous
circumstances in combination with this growing feeling, are
tending to root out the custom from among the Indian Musul-
mans. It has been customary among all classes of the com-
munity to insert in the marriage-deed a clause, by which the
intending husband formally renounces his supposed right to
contract a second union during the continuance of the first
marriage. Among the Indian Musulmans ninety-five men out
of every hundred are at the present moment, either by
conviction or necessity, monogamists. Among the educated
classes, versed in the history of their ancestors, and able to
compare it with the records of other nations, the custom is
regarded with disapprobation. In Persia, only a small fraction
of the population enjoy the questionable luxury of plurality
of wives. 1 It is earnestly to be hoped that, before long,
a general synod of Moslem doctors will authoritatively
declare that polygamy, like slavery, is abhorrent to the laws
of Islam.

We now turn to the subject of Mohammed's marriages,
which to many minds not cognisant of the facts, or not honest
enough to appreciate them, seem to offer a fair ground of
reproach against the Prophet of Islam. His Christian

1 Only two per cent, according to Col. Macgregor.


assailants maintain that in his own person by frequent
marriages he assumed a privilege not granted by the laws, and
that he displayed in this manner a weakness of character little
compatible with the office of Prophet. Truer knowledge of
history, and a more correct appreciation of facts, instead of

Online LibrarySyed Ameer AliThe spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm → online text (page 27 of 55)